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Parks plan for a busy season after last year's high usage
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The outdoors offers a safe place to socially distance and a chance to get out of the house.

Clearly that was a goal as many Minnesotans headed to their local outdoor recreation areas as the pandemic took off around this time last year. Now as the days warm and the sun shines for more hours, southern Minnesotans are making their way out of hibernation and into nature.

Local outdoor recreation and park officials report seeing an increase in attendance over the last year. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is among the parks that saw a significant increase in visitors.

“Our park has been on average about 250% busier than we have been in the last five years,” said Nerstrand Big Woods Park Manager Laurel Quill, adding that the only time the park isn’t in high use is during extreme weather days.

Those stats are reflective of trends seen beyond the region and across the state. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said interest in state parks and trails is significantly up.

“Last year we experienced just unprecedented visitation across our system,” said Rachel Hopper, who runs visitor services for state parks and trails. “State parks and recreation areas visitation was up 25%; for state trails, usage was up a full 50% there.”

While some parks have seen a large increase in visitation, others anticipate having a pretty normal amount of visitors this year. Joel Wagar, area parks and trails supervisor at Rice Lake State Park, believes his park will be among the areas seeing a normal amount of guests this year.

As state emergency orders are relaxed, more outdoor recreation opportunities become available. Rice Lake State Park’s campgrounds will open sooner this year than last year due to the stay at home order.

“The campgrounds didn’t open until June 15 at this park last year,” Wagar said. “With a more normal (campground) opening, we do expect that that piece of it will probably be at a normal year’s (participation) if not slightly above normal.”

But it might draw in people who missed out last year.

“I think there is some pent up demand from last year, because there were reduced camping opportunities last year around the state. I think a lot of parks will probably have either at or above normal use this year,” Wagar predicted.

Through all of last summer the Rice Lake State Park had its lake drawn down as a management practice for waterfowl in consultation with the wildlife division. Thus there were also limited opportunities for people to visit the park to paddle their canoes and kayaks last year.

The park has begun to bring the water level back up and will continue to do so until the lake level returns to normal spring/summer elevation.

“I expect there will be more people back out to paddle the lake like there normally are,” Wagar said. “But those people who didn’t get to do that last year, are going to get a chance to do that this year.”

Interest in the outdoors has not only increased in popularity among Minnesotans during the pandemic, but also across the country. Many states have their own offices for outdoor recreation, and Minnesota is in the process of setting up an office now.

Beginning in April 2020, the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Task Force, made up of outdoor recreation stakeholders, began developing a set of recommendations to support accessibility and equitable outdoor activities throughout many sectors. Additionally the group is working to create a stronger outdoor recreation community.

Currently the group’s recommendations fall under four categories:

Advance equity, diversity and inclusivity

Unite Minnesota’s outdoor recreation community

Unify communication

Create and fund Minnesota’s office of outdoor recreation

Since its inception, the group has been discussing how to bring measured growth, increase access to the outdoors for everyone, and how to bring more outdoor opportunities to residents. The task force is currently preparing to finalize its work. Updated task force recommendations will be shared and discussed at a final meeting that is open to the public scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. March 24. The final actionable recommendations will be submitted to the MN DNR and Explore Minnesota.

Those interested in attending the virtual meeting can find details on how to join by visiting dnr.state.mn.us/ortf/index.html and looking under the “Upcoming task force meetings” tab.

In other news, the MN DNR said that despite the increased attendance, revenue was down last year partially due to the shortened camping season. The DNR is asking the Legislature to approve an increase both in the daily state park pass and the annual pass. Right now the price for a daily pass is $7 and $35 for an annual pass. If approved, the daily pass will increase to $10 and the annual to $45.

“Without that permit fee increase, what we’d likely have to do is cut services,” Hopper said. “That would result in shortened camping seasons, reduced cleaning and maintenance and potentially other reductions to services.”

Mark Zdechlik/Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.

From the Heart moves to virtual, in-person hybrid

The sun was shining and the air was warm on May 2, 2020. As Beth Svenby rounded the corner at the end of the From the Heart course and saw a calm Lake Kohlmier, she let a few tears fall.

“It would have been a wonderful day for a race,” Svenby said. For the first time since the race’s inception in 2009, the From the Heart Run/Walk was canceled in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though it was a difficult decision to make, Svenby said it was the only right one at the time.

“This race is very close to my heart and it was a really hard decision to make – it has gone on for over a decade and we have provided support to over 30 families – but it was without a doubt the right decision,” Svenby said. “And we still had an outpouring from the community even when we canceled. It didn’t stop all the sponsors that came in and the people generating funds and sending checks so that in the end we were still able to give each family a sizable amount.”

The community is invested in From the Heart and looks forward to it every year, she said.

Due to the excitement and overwhelming support still received in 2020 sans a race being held, Svenby and the From the Heart Committee were excited to announce this week that the race will be returning this May with a new format featuring both an in-person race and a virtual option.

“We had talked originally about maybe not being able to have the race again this year, but there were so many emails and phone calls from the community of people asking us to have it so they could look forward to something,” Svenby said. “With the vaccines rolling out we felt a lot more comfortable moving forward, and with this combination of in-person and virtual people can do whatever they are most comfortable with and still participate.”

Also different this year will be a new type of recipient for the funds raised through the race. Throughout the lifetime of the event, the proceeds have been gifted to families who are battling cancer. Because COVID-19 continues to be a risk in the community – especially for those with already compromised immune systems such as cancer patients – Svenby said the usual pool of potential recipients are still taking extra safeguards when it comes to their health.

Instead, for the first time in the race’s history, the From the Heart Committee will be presenting one check to the Oncology Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna.

“This is a really wonderful way for us to still give [families] our support, but in a little bit of a different setting,” Svenby said. “We can leave it up to the department on how to allocate the funds, they will know best on how to meet the needs of their patients.”

Those who had registered for the 2020 event will be able to have their registration fee waived but are asked to fill out a new 2021 registration form. The forms, which can be located on the From the Heart website, also provides a place to select which race format the person would like to participate in, including an “undecided” option.

On race day – May 1 – the half marathon will begin at 8 a.m. and the 5k will begin at 8:30 a.m. Svenby said people are welcome to come run or walk in person during the take-off times or later that morning.

“We will have our course marked with all the mile markers and our banners up until noon,” Svenby said. “We will also have grab and go refreshments, music and festivities by the lake, but it’s kind of a time-yourself event.”

There won’t be any Friday events this year to accommodate for social distance recommendations during the pandemic. The Kids Fun Run will also not take place this year.

Pre-race shirts will be for sale at the Hat Chic in Owatonna from April 1-15 with all the proceeds from the shirts going toward this year’s recipient.

Over the years, thousands of runners and walkers have gathered at Lake Kohlmier for the From the Heart race, raising a total of nearly $400,000 to support 35 families. Last year, the committee was able to present the families of Mark Woodrich, Jon Osmundson and Nova Maas with checks worth $7,000 apiece.

Steele County jail population expected to remain flat
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The inmate population at the Steele County Detention Center is forecasted to remain flat in the future, county commissioners heard Tuesday.

Alan Richardson and Patrick Jablonski of South Carolina-based consultant Justice Planners took commissioners through a preliminary inmate population analysis that’s part of a larger jail study they’re completing for the county. The study’s goal is to create a more financially efficient Detention Center and the study came out of the county’s evaluation of its space needs at all its facilities.

The Detention Center has a maximum capacity of 154, but rarely has that many inmates. Instead, the inmate population has been declining, particularly among Steele County inmates serving sentences. Its use by agencies outside Steele County to house inmates has also been declining. The Detention Center’s overall average daily population dropped by 33% between 2015 and 2019.

Some of the county commissioners were skeptical Tuesday that the inmate numbers would remain stable because the numbers have dipped in recent years due to programs such as Drug Treatment Court, which puts people on a path toward treatment and recovery rather than incarceration.

Commissioner James Brady pointed out that Steele County has an average of 42 inmates in the Detention Center, but the consultants were projecting that the Detention Center needs 66 beds to accommodate inmates from Steele County.

“It seems like we’re preparing for a 100-year rain,” Brady said.

The county needs to plan for peak inmate numbers rather than the daily average and the projected number of beds is based on the operational reality of the Detention Center, Jablonski said. He said that Steele County is the 53rd county jail analysis they’ve completed and three of those have missed the mark, largely because there was a change in incarceration policies in the judicial system.

Commissioner Rick Gnemi said it’s obvious from the analysis that the county needs to continue to allow other jurisdictions to bring inmates to the Detention Center to use the beds. Commissioner Jim Abbe pointed out that the Detention Center only has 15 beds that are extraneous, according to the numbers presented Tuesday.

Steele County commissioners have been considering moving the Sheriff’s Office and Community Corrections staff to the Detention Center, but Richardson told commissioners that he doesn’t have “high hopes” that there’s enough room for those departments at the facility.

The consultants are going to next look at changes to the arrest process that impact the jail population. The finalized jail study report is expected to be completed and presented to the Steele County Board in the next few weeks, according to County Administrator Scott Golberg.

Steele County has agreements with other counties such as Dodge and Rice to house inmates at the Detention Center as needed. But Steele County officials are planning to put a proposal on the table to formalize Rice County’s use of the Detention Center that would consider a longer term commitment than what is currently happening, Golberg said. It would include Rice County financially contributing to capital costs for Detention Center updates.

The Rice County Board heard a recommendation in February that it needs to build a new 76-bed jail at a $55-58 million cost. Several Rice County commissioners said in February that they wanted to talk about options with Steele County before moving forward with constructing a new jail.

Inmate forecast

To forecast the future inmate population, Richardson and Jablonski used historical daily inmate numbers, number of inmate bookings and the length of stay for inmates, which are dictated by the judicial branch’s decisions. The forecast could become obsolete if there’s a major judicial policy change that affects who is sentenced to jail, Jablonski said.

When it comes to planning for an inmate population, 100 inmates doesn’t mean the county only needs 100 beds. Instead, the Detention Center needs enough beds for peak times and for fluctuations in inmates in different classifications, such male or female inmates and minimum and maximum security needs.

The Detention Center has a maximum of 154 beds, but the Department of Corrections has set the facility’s operational capacity at 138 beds to accommodate the safety needs of staff and inmates. Jail Administrator Anthony Buttera told the commissioners Tuesday that the DOC’s capacity number would mean quarters are “tight” at the Detention Center and it’ll be unsafe if they’re over that number.

Steele County has an average daily inmate population of 6 women and 35 men in the Detention Center. But taking into consideration its peak inmate number and the different classifications, the Detention Center would need 66 beds to house inmates only from Steele County through 2045, according to Jablonski.

When it comes to the total number of inmates from all jurisdictions that use the Detention Center, the average daily population is 10 women and 65 men. But the Detention Center needs 118 beds to accommodate inmates from all jurisdictions through 2045, if the peak and different classifications are taken into consideration, according to Jablonski.

Richardson said an issue that came out of their interviews with stakeholders, which isn’t quantified in the data, is the need for mental health and special needs beds. If Steele County set some space aside for inmates who need those types of areas, it could draw more interest from outside agencies to use the Detention Center, he said.

Decrease in use

The Detention Center’s overall average daily population dropped by 33% between 2015 and 2019. During that time, reported offenses, court filings, case processing time and jail bookings had also dropped, according to Jablonski.

The Detention Center’s Steele County inmate population dropped last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has begun to rebound to normal levels in the last few months, Jablonski said. The number of inmates from other counties hasn’t rebounded since its decrease last year.

The number of inmates who are in the Detention Center on pre-trial status dropped by 8% and the number of inmates in the facility due to a violation has increased by 163%, the number of inmates who are in the Detention Center to serve sentences dropped by 71% between 2014 and 2019, Jablonski said.

The average daily population at the Detention Center from other counties dropped by 46% from 2014-19. Other counties typically use Steele County’s Detention Center for inmates who need to be booked for longer stays, Jablonski said. The average length of stay of a Steele County inmate in the Detention Center has stayed stable at about 12 days, whereas inmates from other counties have been housed at the Detention Center for an average of 30 to 40 days.